Issue 127 |
Summer 2015

About Lauren Groff

Last summer on Martha’s Vineyard, Lauren Groff and I went running. I have a lot of endurance—I ran a marathon back in 2001—but my usual pace is middling: I tend to run nine-minute miles. But my first mile with Lauren clocked in at 6:52 (I know because I have an app on my phone that tracks such things). It was the fastest mile I’ve ever run and it almost killed me. After that, I told her to go on ahead. She sprinted off as I watched her blond ponytail disappear down the sandy trail.

Lauren Groff is an athlete. She is tall and majestic; she carries herself with strength and poise. She was a competitive swimmer when she was young and she rowed at Amherst (where she met her husband, Clay, on the crew team). When I asked her about the relationship of sports to her writing, she said, “I think writing is intensely physical, and the stereotype of writers being nerdy weaklings is more false than true: almost every good writer I know is committed to being healthy. I love the discipline of training; at a certain point, youthful zest gets spent, and what you have left is the daily discipline of sitting down with it, no matter what. And there’s nothing that gets me unstuck more than a very long run without music in the heat, because I stop thinking, and my subconscious is left to wander its own way. If I sit down for three hours and can’t do much more than read, I go for a run or walk or swim, and by the time I get back, I have some small glimmer of truth to use.”

At thirty-six, she has used those glimmers of truth in four books: The Monsters of Templeton, her bestselling debut novel, which was shortlisted for the Orange prize for new writers; Delicate Edible Birds, a collection that showcased Groff’s brilliant range as a short-story writer (her stories have appeared in The New Yorker, Harper’s, Ploughshares, and in Best American Short Stories, The O. Henry Prize Stories, and The Pushcart Prize anthology); Arcadia, a New York Times Notable Book, finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Award and one of the Washington Post’s 10 Best Books of 2012; and the dazzling Fates and Furies, which will be published by Riverhead in September of this year. It’s an impressive output for someone so young, but Lauren Groff is one of the hardest-working writers I know.

Groff was born in 1978 and raised in Cooperstown, New York (fictionalized as Templeton in her first novel), but she has lived for the past nine years in Gainesville, Florida, with her husband and two young sons. I asked her where she feels like home and she said, “The truth is that I’m in a sort of limbo, perpetually between places, and I think it’s part of my nature to feel a little lost, a little uncomfortable, always at the edges, looking longingly at other people who are happy and calm in the center. It’s excellent training for being a writer, I think. You never want to be too comfortable, you never want to feel as if you’ve made it, you don’t want to know what you’re doing. Writers are perennially lonely, and a writer’s longing to connect is what fills her work with urgency. I don’t mind feeling uncomfortable, feeling a little lonely, if it means that I get the great joy of continuing to write.” That longing to connect is present in her work. Community—the way people are tied together by history, by place, by love—is often a theme in Groff’s novels. In The Monsters of Templeton, the town and its mythic history connect its residents; Arcadia, her second novel, concerns an intentional community; and Fates and Furies is about a luminous couple and their close-knit group of friends.

Before I met Groff, I fell in love with a story she wrote. “L. Debard and Aliette” appeared in The Atlantic Monthly and then in The Best American Short Stories in 2007. The alliterative first sentence knocked me out: “He is at first a distant wave, the wake-wedge of a loon as it surfaces.” I’d never heard of Lauren Groff when I read that, but knew I was in the presence of supreme talent. “L. Debard and Aliette” is a smart retelling of Abelard and Heloise, the twelfth-century story about Heloise d’Argenteuil and her relationship with philosopher Peter Abelard. Groff’s story is one I teach regularly; I continue to be impressed by its lyricism, its wit, and its omniscient voice. There are few contemporary writers who use omniscience, and I can’t think of any who do so as well as Groff. In “L. Debard and Aliette,” she artfully dips in and out of her characters’ perspectives, but she also sweeps out, giving the story scope without sacrificing intimacy. (Speaking of omniscience, I sometimes think that Groff is, in fact, all-knowing. She has read everything and is an astute critic.) She also uses an omniscient narrative voice to beautiful effect in Fates and Furies, an epic novel about a marriage that has the urgency of Greek tragedy and the sly humor that permeates all of Groff’s work. (She is funny, on and off the page.)

Fates and Furies is about Lotto Satterwhite and his wife, Mathilde. They marry young, right after they graduate from Vassar, and though it is Lotto who eventually becomes a famous playwright, Mathilde is crucial to his success. Mathilde is editor, dramaturge, and muse. She is also one of the fiercest, most compelling characters I’ve ever encountered. Fates, the half of the novel focused on her perspective, reads like a kommos, a lamentation so lyrical and powerful that it had me weeping by the end. Fates and Furies asks how well we can ever know another person; it is also about art, ego, desire, and the creative process. Groff writes of Lotto Satterwhite, “He was enough of a lover of forms to understand the allure of such a strict life, how much internal wildness it could release.” Groff’s life is also strict. “I’m from taciturn hardworking Pennsylvania Dutch farming stock,” she told me, “and work is what we delight in, and we feel at a loss if we’re not being anchored by daily sweat.” She writes early drafts by hand, on legal pads. Once she has a complete draft of a novel, she throws the pages away, and begins again, writing the new draft (again by hand) from memory. “The handwriting/legal pads technique developed because I tend to overthink, overwrite, overstress my drafts, and it gives me a gorgeous amount of freedom to fuck up without consequences,” she said. “You figure out pretty quickly what the structural flaws are if you bullet through a first draft in a few months. After a few drafts written this way, the story begins to feel like an item that has been 3-D printed, the material built up little by little to become something multidimensional in my mind. My very favorite draft is always the last one, when I do the delicious, deeply satisfying work of just playing with sentences, because the joy of sentence-making is what got me into writing to begin with. It’s the frosting to the equally satisfying cake.”

And what stunning sentences they are. Groff is a wonderful storyteller, in the vein of Charles Dickens, but she is also a prose stylist, who counts Virginia Woolf among her many influences. Groff’s sentences are those of a writer attuned to the sound of words. I admired those sentences long before I knew their author, but knowing Groff gives me even more appreciation for them. Lauren Groff is a woman of intellect and integrity; she is generous and warm; and she’s hard to keep up with. Watch her; she’s already gone far, but she’s only just begun.

Elliott Holt is the author of You Are One of Them (Penguin Press, 2013). Her short fiction and essays have appeared or are forthcoming in The New York Times, Slate, Time, Virginia Quarterly Review, Guernica, the Pushcart Prize anthology, and elsewhere.